Judging the Royals

Yordano Ventura, Sean Manaea and how catchers frame pitches

Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura
Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura jsleezer@kcstar.com

First things first: the Oakland A’s put another nail in the Royals coffin Wednesday night. This time the score was 8-0 and the losing pitcher was Yordano Ventura.

The Royals are five games out of a wild-card spot with 17 games left to play, so their hopes are still alive; the bigger problem is how many teams they’ll have to pass to get to that wild-card spot. The Royals have to play great down the stretch — something they haven’t been doing — and the teams they’re chasing have to play poorly.

From a Royals fan’s point of view, Wednesday night’s loss was pretty dismal, so let’s use the game to take a look at something you may have been hearing about lately…

Framing reports

When you watch a game on TV and there’s a questionable call on balls or strikes, they’ll show you a grid representing the strike zone and a dot representing the ball. So now we know for sure what’s a ball and what’s a strike; right?

Now take it a step further; we can now see which catchers get balls called strikes or strikes called balls. And a catcher who can get more strikes for his pitcher is worth more than a catcher without the same skill; right?

Not so fast.

Look at different websites and you’ll see the same pitch shown as a ball on one site and as a strike on another. Players and umpires do not believe those grids are totally accurate, unless the grid backs up their point of view. So it depends on which grid you’re using and even if everybody uses the same grid it depends on how accurately the grid is calibrated.

Umpire’s strike zones

It would be nice if every umpire had the same strike zone; preferably the one described in the rule book. But whenever you get humans involved things get a little fuzzy; one umpire might be tight on the corners but willing to give strikes up and down. Another umpire might be the opposite.

Before each game catchers, pitchers and pitching coaches talk about that night’s umpire; where can you go to get a borderline pitch called a strike?

And the umpire’s strike zone might change as the game moves along. Catchers, hitters and pitchers are constantly lobbying umpires to change the strike zone and sometimes they do.

The people involved matter

Some catchers have the gift of gab and are good at working an umpire to get what he wants; other catchers aren’t so personable or the umpire might be a guy who doesn’t like to talk during a game.

And if there’s an All-Star at the plate and a rookie on the mound, the All-Star might get the borderline calls. Same thing in reverse; a Cy Young winner has a better chance of getting a call than a kid just up from the minors.

Or let’s say the umpire has something going on with one of the people involved. Billy Butler had a reputation for looking back at the umpire and complaining. Looking back is a no-no; it lets everyone in the stadium know the hitter thinks the umpire missed the pitch. Any complaining is supposed to be done while looking straight ahead. If Billy showed up an umpire, that umpire might retaliate by calling every borderline pitch a strike.

What about location? Will a rookie umpire ring up Miguel Cabrera on a 3-2 pitch in Detroit?

And don’t forget a pitcher’s stuff: if a pitcher has a fastball or a hard breaking pitch with nasty, late movement, the catcher will have trouble framing pitches. When Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis have their good movement, Salvador Perez and Drew Butera aren’t going to look so hot on a framing report.

And if your staff has a knuckleball pitcher, the catcher is just trying to keep the ball from going to the backstop; framing pitches goes out the window.

Ventura vs. Manaea

Now let’s get specific and talk about Wednesday night’s game: Yordano Ventura and Sean Manaea were the starting pitchers, Salvador Perez and Bruce Maxwell were the catchers, the home plate umpire was Adam Hamari.

Using MLB.com’s Gameday strike zone, Hamari missed more pitches — strikes called balls — with Ventura on the mound than when Manaea was pitching. So can we jump to the conclusion that Maxwell did a better job of framing pitches then Perez?

Framing was certainly one factor, but it ignores everything else that went on Wednesday night.

Manea threw 67 pitches, 51 for strikes and that’s about 76 percent. Ventura threw 100 pitches, 58 for strikes and that’s — unsurprisingly — 58 percent on the nose. When a pitcher is around the zone and then throws a pitch on the black he’s more likely to get the call than a pitcher who’s all over the place and then throws that same pitch on the black. It might not be fair, but that’s the way it works and it has nothing to do with pitch framing.

Which pitches did Hamari miss?

First of all, remember these pitches were missed according to one website and that strike zone might not be completely accurate. Nevertheless, Hamari had trouble with two types of pitches:

1. Pitches with movement

2. Pitches away

When a pitch has a lot of break on it, the umpire has to decide where it crossed the plate. If it was a pitch that finished out of the zone, did it cross the plate in the zone; if it was a pitch that finished in the zone, did it cross the plate out of the zone?

And umpires who sets up in the slot — looking over the catcher’s shoulder at the inside part of the plate, in the slot between the catcher and hitter — have a hard time seeing the pitch on the outside corner. That’s why you see some catchers angle their bodies; they want to give the umpire a better look at the pitch away.

And if an umpire isn’t sure where a pitch was, some umpires tend to call that pitch a strike and some umpires tend to call that pitch a ball; once again, it’s nothing to do with pitch framing because the umpire can’t see it.

In conclusion, don’t reach one

Dang (which is one letter away from the word I want to use) I’m running out of room and I haven’t said anything about score: if the game is a blowout, every pitch that’s close to the plate is going to be a strike. And if that blowout takes place on getaway day — the day everyone has a plane to catch — the catcher is going to look like a pitch-framing genius.

I could go on, but I hope we’ve already reached the point where it’s clear you can’t take framing reports at face value.

A catcher’s skill at receiving a pitch matters, but it’s not the only thing that matters.

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